After Flint, Feds and Some States Speed Up Time for Notifying Public About Lead-Contaminated Water

Before the new laws, utilities let residents unknowingly drink toxic water for months.
by | February 27, 2017
A protester in Sebring, Ohio (FlickrCC/Marc Nozell)

The nation's public water utilities will have to tell their customers within 24 hours -- rather than 60 days -- if dangerous levels are detected in homes they service under a law Congress recently passed in response to the Flint water crisis.

The requirement, which became law in December, comes after utilities and state environmental regulators failed to alert residents to high lead levels in drinking water in Ohio and Michigan. Both of those states have passed their own laws requiring faster notifications.

Lead exposure at any level can be dangerous, particularly to pregnant women and children. It can damage the brain, red blood cells and kidneys, and can cause lifelong developmental problems.

The changes in federal law will add lead to a list of contaminants that public water utilities are already required to notify their customers about if dangerous levels are detected. Those contaminants include E. coli, waterborne diseases and high levels of nitrates.

Because water utilities currently have to make those notifications for other contaminants, the process of alerting customers to high lead levels should already be in place for most utilities, says Dan Hartnett, director of legislative affairs at the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

The more complicated part, he says, will be figuring out when the 24-hour notification period starts. Other contaminants can be detected at water treatment plants, but lead enters drinking water in service lines that connect buildings to water mains or in a building’s plumbing itself. So it’s unclear whether utilities should alert the public based on the first set of test results it receives during periodic monitoring, or whether the water system should wait until all of the results are in, Hartnett says. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to clarify that in the coming months.

 

The new federal law follows similar efforts in several states. For instance, Ohio Gov. John Kasich pushed for quicker notice of high lead levels after a lead-in-water crisis in Sebring, a town 60 miles southeast of Cleveland with a water system that serves 8,000 people. It took officials five months to notify Sebring water users about 2015 tests showing high lead levels in seven of 20 homes tested there.

In the wake of the crisis, Kasich called on state lawmakers to require water utilities to notify the public sooner about lead violations. The resulting law does so in several steps:

  • The utility has to notify individual customers within two days of a test showing positive results for lead in their homes. If samples show lead levels of more than 15 parts per billion, the utilities cannot mail the notification.
  • When high individual results are found, the utility has to provide the customer with information about blood level testing and health screening in their area. The utility must also notify the local board of health of the results within two days.
  • If the overall system shows high levels of lead, the utility must notify the public within two days of receiving the results and has a smaller timeframe in which to mail more detailed information to customers. The utility will also have to launch a public education campaign from 60 business days to 30 business days after getting the results.

Heidi Griesmer, a spokesperson with the Ohio EPA, says the agency is also encouraging local utilities to provide bottled water or filters to residents who have high levels of lead in their water.

The Flint water crisis also prompted lawmakers to require quicker disclosure of high lead tests in Michigan. In Flint, nearly seven months went by between the first tests showing high lead levels in a home and city and state officials telling the public to stop drinking the water.

Michigan lawmakers decided on a three-day public notification period for utilities where high lead levels are prevalent. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the measure in January. “This is an important step in our ongoing efforts to strengthen Michigan’s water quality and infrastructure,” he said.

It was the first legislation, other than funding for new water infrastructure, that Michigan legislators passed in reaction to the Flint water crisis.

Officials in both Michigan and Ohio say they are waiting for further guidance from the EPA to determine whether, or how, the new federal law will affect their new notification laws.